texts with the illustrations are from W.F. Kirby's translation of
the Kalevala (1907)
The artist Hannu Väisänen, who has illustrated
a new edition of the Kalevala, describes his
approach to the epic
The Kalevala is above all a book of songs. Even collected between
two covers, it is a reminder of tradition passed on through
singing. Memory grows vigilant when it receives the support of melody
and rhyme. Even when a long poem is sung to a short tune, the poem
seems only to be enriched. The poetic image is constantly submerged
in its own reflection, bringing the Kalevala its typical
crossings over, recurrent mirror images and symmetries. It underlines
the core of the Kalevala, its unique poetic metre. The tetrametric
trochee functions to strengthen both memory and musicality.
How to describe the rhythm of rune-singing
without simply drawing a picture of someone opening their mouth?
The transposition of music into image can really only be suggestive.
The place of a image in time and space is, after all, quite different
from that of music. And one of the characteristics of the image
I have taken the Kalevala's metre as the basis of my own
illustrations and made my compositions in search of its metrical
rules. I have included in my pictures objects, abstract and figurative
forms in a way that does not recall any event, but mimics rhythm
and musical tensions. These compositional tools have been both objects
designed by myself and found objects. A form cut out of cardboard
or some object in my possession has functioned as a template for
my search for the screen of metre in the picture-space. My own hand,
too, with its syllable-counting fingers, has sometimes acted as
a template in this way.
I have deliberately left the doings,
love-adventures and wild-goose chases of the Kalevala's heroes
unillustrated. The descriptions of the making of soap, charms for
diseases, feasts celebrating the killing of a bear, the dance of
the smith's tongs, the movement of the shuttle and of the loom -
activity in general - are every bit as important in the search for
the mythic level of the Kalevala.
I have not drawn imagined faces for
the heroes. That would have seemed like cropping the imaginations
of both the hero and the reader. Because drawing up an allegory
for national sentiment is not among my tasks, I have not consciously
sought to include 'Karelian' material in my work. Quite the contrary:
I have deliberately sought links between the Kalevala and
other great epics and cultures. These links are well-known, and
develop the universal, everywhere adaptable map of the Kalevala.
Without borrowing directly from the
any known imagery, I have tried to gather together those visual
experiences that different cultures have awoken in me. I have placed
time, place and plot behind my syllabic images. In shaping the story
itself, the reader must go back to the text. And to song. The more
one reads the Kalevala, the more one realises that song is
not only power or an embellishment of life or a value. It is a necessity.
Why a necessity?
Where a book appears to call a halt
to the passing on of the oral tradition by recording it, rune-singing
- with its constantly changing rules - keeps its image of the world
in a syncretic state, and in motion.
Rather than being merely a reading
experience, the Kalevala should awaken the need to tell in
song. I dare say this, even though I have been working on illustrations
to the Kalevala for almost two years. It is true that we
have now been living for almost three generations without rune-singing.
Our mental image of the Kalevala has shrunk to the characters
created by the artists of the turn of the century and to the compulsory
Kalevala we read at school.
The Kalevala tries to clothe
itself in a plot. But the plot is tattered. The Kalevala
we know was put together from such disparate material that it is
reasonable to question its plot. The songs of the Kalevala
were sung in different situations and the rune-singer selected his
song according to the nature of the situation. Lönnrot himself
admitted that he never, on his poem-gathering expeditions, heard
a single entire Kalevala plot, only fragments. For this reason
it is understandable that the Kalevala heroes are really
torsos, compositions without any real psychological shape. Only
the anti-hero Kullervo is in some sense whole.
But why search for unnecessary wholeness
where the richness of fragmentation is most rewarding? Understandings
of stories and heroes vary from village to village. So do the needs
that dictate who and what are to be sung about. It is precisely
this which underlines the central role of the singer as a conveyer
An illustrator cannot retrieve the
tradition of rune-singing. Even though I begin my working day by
singing aloud the passage from the Kalevala which I have
selected as my task, as I listen to its rhythm I am forced to note
how the materiality of the image distances the immateriality of
the song. Of course, this can also generate a challenge to make
an image which might work like a real incantation.
A new special edition of Kalevala,
illustrated by Hannu Väisänen, was published by Otava
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